Thursday, August 04, 2011

Bad Books On The Beach: No. 1 – ‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan

Come Saturday, poetry will save civilization
I recently had the luxury of a week doing nothing on Bethany Beach but catching up on some rapidly yellowing paperbacks. Holidays mean taking books by authors I’ve read easily in the past, rather than anything remotely challenging like Volume 2 of ‘Das Kapital’. This year I packed Ian McEwan, Nick Hornby and Jonathan Safran Foer, and I got through them all quickly enough. The only problem was that they were all, in some crucial respect, spoilt by flaws in plot, style or character. My theory is that once an author’s established, editors get lazy about telling them what needs improving. Or maybe the writer’s too big to take advice. Maybe no one cares because once a reputation is forged, any old shit will sell. And so you get a train wreck like ‘Saturday’ (2005).

Narrator Henry Perowne is described in the blurb of this “triumphant new novel” as “a neurosurgeon, urbane, privileged, deeply in love with his wife and grown-up children”. Despite his (read, the author’s) engaging introspective reflections over the course of a Saturday where he’s skirting an anti-war demo in London to play squash, visit his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother in an old people’s home, go shopping for fish, and watch his wonderfully talented teenage son play blues guitar, he’s unbelievably dim. He gets in a side-street skirmish with an archetypal hoodlum, Baxter (to be played by a young version of Bob Hoskins), and his two sidekicks after a minor car accident, who threaten to maim him if he doesn’t cough up 700 quid for the damage. Then he escapes by identifying on the spot Baxter’s incurable condition, Huntington’s Disease, causing the sidekicks to desert the thug at this sign of weakness. Having wheedled his way out of this, and despite thinking the thug’s still possibly following him, and despite having being assaulted, Henry toddles off to play squash. Obviously no literary hero does anything as mundane as going to the cops and saying, “Some fucking psycho
just threatened to kill me and could be following me - he drives a red BMW and this is his number plate.”

This somewhat backfires much later in the day (though it finally shoves the brittle plot along) when Baxter and one of his re-recruited sidekicks mug Henry’s (brilliantly successful at something or other) wife at the front door as she comes home from work, and then hold the whole family hostage at knife-point, including his successful poet father-in-law and about-to-be-incredibly-successful poet daughter, just arrived from Paris, who they order to strip and seem likely to rape until they realise she’s pregnant. How will Henry’s fantastic family ever get out of this? Will his son sing the blues? Will his daughter recite poetry? Ha ha, don’t be stupid…. but wait a minute, that’s exactly what happens. The thug is intrigued by the daughter’s debut poetry volume, about to be published, and orders her to read from it. At a signal from her poet grandfather she instead recites Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, and Baxter, thinking she wrote it, opines in wonder that, “It’s beautiful”, and all his resolve to rape, stab, kill etc, dissolves. He orders Henry upstairs to his computer to get information about Huntington’s Disease, the sidekick conveniently leaves (again disgusted that Baxter has weakened), there’s a struggle on the stairs, Baxter falls and knocks himself out. Later, once the ambulance has taken the villain to hospital, Henry successfully operates on him, then comes home and boffs the wife at 5 in the morning. End.

So, even leaving aside the clumsy absurdity of the poetry turnaround (why did his editor not scream: “No! No, Ian! You have to change this bit! It’s shite! It’s really, really, really shite!”), let’s turn to his wife. Here is my experience of wives. They keep us on our toes. They let you know when you’ve done something really stupid. I’d like to think that if this happened to me, Mrs. Pop would say, “This bloke threatened to kill you this morning, you thought he was following you around all day, and you did nothing, and then he came in OUR house and held a knife to my throat, broke my father’s nose, ordered our daughter to strip naked… I mean, Henry dear, WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU PLAYING AT, YOU FUCKING IDIOT?” But no, his lovely, beautiful wife utters nothing even close to a reproach, but kisses him “longer and deeper” as he announces he’s on his way to operate on Baxter, asking him if he’s sure it will be alright. Never mind that if he accidentally screws up, there might be a question or two about why he was operating on a man who just hours previously looked like killing his entire family. Never mind that he’s been drinking. So his wife, unlike yours or mine surely would, doesn’t say, “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND? YOU COULD LOSE YOUR MEDICAL LICENCE. YOU’RE NOT EVEN FIT TO DRIVE, LET ALONE OPERATE, YOU FUCKWIT. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT LEAVING THIS HOUSE.”

Jesus, if the privileged classes are this stupid, why did we not overthrow them? Just dig a large pit and tell them to walk to the edge, and then tell them to keep walking some more.

Henry is ambivalent about the Iraq war that the protesters are marching against on this Saturday. He’s treated someone who was severely tortured by Saddam, so thinks there’s a case for sending in the troops to overthrow him. Is this whole messy Baxter plot a parallel by which he comes to see that violence is the wrong way to change people, and that poetry will work much better? If we’d sent the real-life equivalent of Henry’s daughter – some posh, fruity lass with a talent for verse - to Baghdad to read poetry to Saddam, would that have softened his heart? That’s the only point I can glean from this fatuous tosh. If that’s not the point (and I really hope it’s not), then we’re left with: “Oh, this agonised world, with all its violence and torture, what a terrible place, but in the end what can one do but one’s best, within one’s personal limits?”

It’s all very well juxtaposing privilege with struggle, but the privileged family is meticulously portrayed (though that doesn’t make them any more likeable, or even more nuanced, Henry aside), while the struggler is a volatile, comic book thug who’s implausibly sidetracked from psychotic mayhem by a single poem. How did McEwan get away with this? And why did the reviewers, whose two pages of “international acclaim” are the first thing you read when you open the book, not see through this preposterous drivel? The Chicago Tribune claimed the book is “emblematic of an entire era.” Christopher Hitchens said the book “lucidly shows us that civilization and culture and the life of the mind, fragile as they seemingly are, nonetheless have a resilience that can outlast barbarism”.

And I thought it was just emblematic of chronically bad editing and sloppy characterisation, lucidly showing us that the privileged family will get over this trauma and keep writing poetry and being extraordinarily successful, but sadly for the likes of Baxter, there’s no cure for Huntington’s Disease. But don’t worry, there’s hope, even a violent thug can appreciate good poetry.

At one point Henry disdainfully reflects on magical realist novelists and asks: “What were these authors of reputation doing - grown men and women of the twentieth century - granting supernatural powers to their characters?” Yeah, magical realism, that stuff’s just not credible, eh? The magical power of poetry, though, that’s something else.


Gorilla Bananas said...

Maybe you've got the moral of the story wrong. Perhaps the author was saying "what a silly, weak-kneed country we've become, where vicious scoundrels have to be appeased with poetry rather than being hanged in front of a baying mob at Tyburn." (And the Iraq war resulted in Saddam being hanged, which underlines the the author's point".)

No Good Boyo said...

I've not read the book but can endorse the point you make about editors' being loath to touch the manuscripts of established authors, at least in Britain. Iris Murdoch is a case in point. Her last novels needed serious pruning, and "Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals" was embarrassing.

I'm not posh, by the way.

nathan3e said...

McEwan has always been hit or miss for me. I did enjoy Solar. For what it is worth, I am told by people that know that certain writers refuse to be edited.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

That Iris Murdoch book sounds like it should have been stopped at the title stage alone. Writing without a good editor is like acting without a director.

I should mention that I enjoyed nearly all the McEwan novels I'd read up to now, especially The Cement Garden, The Child In Time and Enduring Love.

Ben Milne said...

Who knew Dover Beach could have such a kick-ass effect? Watch out Van Damme!

Actually the scene reads like it was pilfered from a much better scene in Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451.